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BALKANS: Apologising to Sterilised Roma Women – Slovakia’s Turn

BRATISLAVA, Nov 27 2009 (IPS) - Rights activists are hoping a landmark announcement by the Czech government regretting forced sterilisation of Roma women in the past will push politicians in neighbouring Slovakia to follow suit.

The Czech government this week made a public statement of regret that Roma women were sterilised in the past without their full consent and said that safeguards had been drawn up to make sure nothing similar happens in the future.

Rights groups claim that from the 1970s until 1990, Romani women were systematically sterilised under a Czechoslovak government programme aimed at reducing the “high, unhealthy” birth rate of Romani women.

But while the Czech government has now issued a statement of regret over the sterilisations, rights groups say Slovak politicians have not dealt with the issue.

Ostalinda Maya Ovalle, women’s issues specialist at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in Budapest, told IPS: “We have to hope that this move by the Czech government will push the Slovak authorities into doing more on this issue and compensate victims of forced sterilisation.”

Justice, At Last

In June, a Romani woman identified as Ms A.S. received 28,000 dollars in compensation for being sterilised without her consent more than eight years ago.

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found the Hungarian government in violation in August 2006.

A case was filed against the government under the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (OP-CEDAW).

Excerpts from an email interview with OSTALINDA MAYA OVALLE of the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in Budapest by IPS Gender Editor Ann Ninan.

IPS: How was the Optional Protocol used in this case? Did the ERRC have a role?

OSTALINDA MAYA OVALLE: The case was brought under the Optional Protocol ratified by Hungary on Mar 22, 2001. The ERRC funded the litigation at national level through the Legal Defense Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities and submitted the complaint to CEDAW. The ERRC also carried out numerous advocacy activities and lobbied the Hungarian government to ensure the full implementation of the CEDAW decision.

IPS: When was the compensation money handed over?

OMO: The compensation (28,000 dollars) was transferred to her personal bank account on June 11, 2009.

IPS: Without the Optional Protocol could the victim have hoped for justice?

OMS: In domestic litigation the Hungarian courts dismissed the damage claim therefore she did not receive any compensation. As the outcome of the case shows the optional protocol was key to find redress for Ms A.S.

However, we should note that the decision has not yet been fully implemented to date.

The decision contained three elements to be implemented: 1. compensation to the victim, 2. legislative changes regarding the law on informed consent in cases of sterilisation and 3. the establishment of a monitoring body to ensure that sterilisation is carried out with full informed consent given by the patient.

Number 2 and 3 have not yet been fully implemented (although there has been some legislative changes, the Hungarian law regarding sterilisation is not in full compliance with international standards).

Rights groups claim that authorities in the former Czechoslovakia coerced Roma women into sterilisations by offering them either large financial incentives or threatening that if they did not undergo the procedure their existing children would be taken away and put under state care.

Under communism the Roma, better known as gypsies, in the Czech Republic were largely seen as uneducated and backward and, while outwardly considered by the authorities as part of communist society, they were often looked down upon and treated as second-class citizens.

The practice came to light in 2003 when women began coming forward, claiming they had been victims of forced sterilisation. More than 80 women in the Czech Republic lodged complaints with the country’s ombudsman, and investigations revealed that official written records at local authorities dating back to the communist era contained recommendations that the “unwanted growth of Roma families” should be “restricted”.

The ombudsman’s report on investigations concluded that the sterilisations had not been individual isolated cases but coordinated.

Research by the ERRC found that some women had been sterilised without their knowledge while in other cases they had not given informed consent. Some complained they had been given papers they did not understand, and which sometimes were presented to them on the operating table.

The ombudsman found that the women’s complaints were justified and that they had not given informed consent for the procedures.

But complications with the statute of limitations on the illegal sterilisations, scarcity of records dating back decades and a lack of legal aid have led to claims for compensation being rejected. All criminal charges have been dropped.

Victims’ groups have welcomed the Czech authorities’ expression of regret, describing it as a “milestone” they hope will open a path to “justice” for victims.

Elena Gorolova, spokeswoman for the Group of Women Harmed by Sterilisation, told Czech media: “The apology means a first step towards long awaited justice, although much remains to be done.”

But activists have attacked the Slovak government for not making a similar move.

When the claims of forced sterilisation first emerged the government at the time pledged to carry out an investigation. Criminal investigations in 2003 and an investigation carried out by the health ministry concluded there was no evidence of forced sterilisation. Another investigation in 2007 ended with the same statement.

But domestic and international rights groups criticised the investigations as not being independent.

“They need to create an independent commission to investigate this properly and then issue an apology and compensation to the victims,” Vanda Durbakova, a lawyer with the Centre for Civil and Human Rights NGO who has defended Roma women in court cases over the sterilisations, told IPS.

Durbakova added: “It is symptomatic that in the Czech Republic where these practices also went on that the government has apologised. The stance of the Slovak political elite is opportunistic and short-sighted.”

Slovak officials’ continued claim that there is no evidence of forced sterilisations comes despite the Council of Europe issuing a statement in 2005 that Roma women were sterilised without their consent and the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women last year calling on Slovakia to accept responsibility for forced sterilisations.

Last week the United Nations Committee Against Torture criticised the Slovak government for its “passive” approach to investigating the sterilisations and called on it to launch an effective and unbiased investigation as well as to compensate the victims of the practice.

Durbakova said she was pessimistic as to whether the Czech government’s public announcement would prompt any change in the Slovak government’s stance on the issue. “We will have to wait and see, but I think it is unlikely.’’

A European Court of Human Rights ruling in April upheld complaints by eight women who said their human rights had been breached when they were not granted full access to their medical records when they suspected they had been sterilised against their will. Slovak authorities appealed the ruling, but it was rejected last week and they have now been ordered to pay the women compensation.

The ERRC’s Ovalle said she hoped the Czech government’s statement and the European Court of Human Rights ruling would now force the Slovak government into more action on the issue.

“They have to do something because the Czechs have done something and even in Hungary, where cases of forced sterilisation of Roma women, albeit not systematic, have been identified, one female victim of the practice has been compensated by the government.’’

“There is only Slovakia left to address the issue now,” Ovalle said.

Rights groups have meanwhile warned that while attention has been focused on systematic sterilisations under the communist regime, the practice did not die out in the 1990s.

Some of the most recent cases of claimed forced sterilisation in the Czech Republic date back to just last year and Roma rights activists claim that in one case of 2007 social workers threatened to take a Roma mother’s children away from her unless she had the operation.

Roma are among the largest minorities in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, numbering hundreds of thousands in each state, although their exact numbers are uncertain because many do not register their ethnicity on national census forms. Roma claim that they are subjected to continued persecution and racism at all levels of society.

Activists say that while there is no suggestion that the practice today is part of a systematic programme, doctors are being motivated to perform sterilisations amid racist attitudes to Roma that are as rife in society now as they were more than 30 years ago.

“The systematic sterilisation programme ended with the fall of communism. But we know that after that there were still forced sterilisations, some very, very recently. There is still a strong degree of racism towards the Roma that exists in [Czech and Slovak] society,” said Ovalle.

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